Wigan Athletic’s old guard turned out in force at the DW yesterday. Third from bottom Latics were more than a match for third from top Middlesbrough and the home team can count itself a shade unfortunate not to have come out of it with three points. There were enough positive signs to suggest that Latics can put their horrendous start to the season behind them and be a team that will be hard to beat.
Malky Mackay wisely resorted to experience and the opening lineup had just two of Uwe Rosler’s signings in it. The old guard was back in force.
The unfortunate Rob Kiernan was not even on the bench. Emmerson Boyce was back in his old favourite right back position, with Andrew Taylor restored at left back. The centre of defence had a solid look about it with a pairing of Ivan Ramis and Leon Barnett. Mackay retained the 4-3-3 formation that Rosler had been using of late, with Adam Forshaw and Chris McCann in the holding roles and Roger Espinoza pushed further forward. Marc-Antoine Fortune played the lone centre forward role with Callum McManaman and Shaun Maloney playing wide.
The game started with a show of support for Dave Whelan that brought him to tears, as fans stood up and applauded him. It was one of those emotional moments that will be etched into the collective Wigan Athletic memory for years to come.
Latics started cautiously but soon started to match Boro. Players were working hard for each other and the team looked organised and compact. Chris McCann was bossing the left centre of midfield, reminding us of what we have been missing for the past seven months. In the 9th minute Shaun Maloney went close with a free kick that went just over the top. Fifteen minutes later McCann was brought down after bursting through from midfield. Maloney stepped up to put a perfect free kick into the left hand corner. The game became largely a midfield tussle with neither side willing to commit too many players forward. But just before half time Boro centre forward Kike turned to put a fine shot narrowly wide.
The game continued in the same vein until the 57th minute when Patrick Bamford, who had come on as a substitute for the visitors, scored an opportunist goal, evading Ramis and firing across Carson into the right hand corner. But Latics held firm and a patient and skillful buildup led to the ball falling to McCann, who could not keep it down and the chance was lost.
Maloney was buzzing and threatened to unlock a stubborn and well organized Boro defence. His set pieces had been excellent and in the 70th minute his inswinging corner was met by Barnett whose effort hit the post. James McClean had come on for Espinoza after 70 minutes. There was great applause for the return of Ben Watson, coming on for Forshaw after 80 minutes. James Perch replaced a tired looking Boyce a minute later.
Although one of the physically biggest sides that one will see in the Championship this year, Boro had kept the ball largely on the ground, no doubt under the influence of Spanish manager Aitor Karanka. However, in the closing minute they threatened to use their height to steal the game at the death. However, Latics defence was to hold firm.
Mackay was wise in packing so many of the old guard into his lineup. That lack of cohesion that had been so evident with new players being introduced en masse was no longer apparent. The players looked comfortable working together and effort and commitment was also evident.
McCann was a revelation, somehow completing the full period of the game despite a lack of match practice after such a long absence. His tackling was as crisp as ever and he put the ball to good use. Maloney was a different player to what we had seen under Rosler, looking like the player of yesteryear under Martinez.
Mackay made a bold statement by putting Boyce in at right back and leaving Perch on the bench. Boyce looked rusty and off-pace at times, but he can offer so much more going forward. He has been out of action for several weeks and that showed. It remains to be seen whether he will be able to regularly command that right back spot at 35 year of age. Andrew Taylor fully justified his recall, being solid in defence and offering good support to the attack. It was another bold move to give him preference over crowd favourite Maynor Figueroa.
It was an experienced and capable back four and it is to be hoped that Mackay will not tinker with it, as did his predecessor. The midfield worked hard. Forshaw continues to show that he is willing to make the effort for the team. His more creative side will show more when he is fully established as a starter in the team. Espinoza showed typical commitment, with an all-action performance. He made one or two naïve passes, but this should not detract from the value he added. Whether an attacking midfield position is the best place to play him remains open to debate.
McManaman threatened, but once again the opposition were prepared to deal with him. He so much more dangerous when not confined to the right wing. Fortune fought for the high balls, but was short of ideas in his distribution and did not move into positions that threatened the opposition defence. The time must surely come for Oriel Riera to appear on a regular basis. Andy Delort did not even make the bench, but his time will surely come too.
When McClean came on in the second half, Maloney moved into a more central position. The 4-3-3-formation became more like the 4-2-3-1 played by Scotland. That could well prove to be Mackay’s favoured system.
Mackay put out a conservative lineup and did not pour men into attack. Given Wigan’s league position he was probably justified. He is not a manager associated with flowing attacking football, but the most important thing for Latics at the moment is results.
This was not a great result, neither was it a bad one.
Scott Carson: 6 – largely unemployed and cannot be faulted for Boro’s goal.
Emmerson Boyce: 6 – it was good to see the captain back.
Ivan Ramis: 7 – classy as ever, with fine interceptions and quality passing of the ball. But should he have done better with Bamford’s goal?
Leon Barnett: 6.5 – not at his best, but solid and dependable. But his style is a perfect foil for that of Ramis. Together they could provide a formidable centre of defence.
Andrew Taylor: 7 – a complete performance. Deserved his recall.
Adam Forshaw: 6.5- full of industry.
Roger Espinoza: 6.5 – his mistakes were more obvious than the good things he did. Deserves an extended run in the team.
Chris McCann: 8.5 – combative, hardworking and with the cultured left foot. A quality player at Championship level.
Callum McManaman: 6 – exciting as always when on the ball, but should be more proactive when Latics attack. Despite his prodiguous talent he needs to add another dimension to his game to become a real top player.
Marc-Antoine Fortune: 6 – committed but limited in attacking vision.
Shaun Maloney: 8.5 – got rough treatment from the visitors, but was not deterred and showed his quality. A brilliant free kick.
James McClean: – raw energy, physicality, speed and commitment are his key assets. But he is another player who needs to take his game to a higher level. Needs to develop an aspect of unpredictability about his play.
James Perch: – a very solid and dependable full back, unlucky not to make the starting lineup.
Ben Watson: – can he make a comeback in the same way as McCann? After successive leg breaks it is going to be a tall order. But if he can Latics will have a formidable midfield.